How can your company attract and retain the best talent? Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation, says it’s crucial to recognize upfront that “our career model is hopelessly dated.” In many ways, the corporate world is still stuck in the 1960s and 1970s, she says, but both the demographics and the needs of the workforce have changed dramatically. So what are the most successful companies doing?
First, they’re re-evaluating the trend toward “extreme jobs” that require punishing hours and 24/7 availability. “What we’re finding is that many cohorts of people would really like to take some kind of a break,” says Hewlett. “It’s nothing to do with childcare anymore; it’s because of the extraordinary weight and scope of a job these days. In our research on the extreme workplace, we identified a trend toward ‘brownout.’ It’s not burnout; people aren’t literally collapsing in front of you. But there’s significant physical distress and a sense of being below par in what you can deliver, because you’re depleted.”
In addition to greater workplace flexibility – from flextime to job-sharing to telecommuting – Hewlett suggests another possible solution: offering unpaid sabbaticals, which she calls “odysseys.” Increasingly, she says, people “need a break of three months, or six months, to refresh your soul. It’s not just not having conference calls at 11 o’clock at night, but a refreshing of the spirit that’s needed. It’s a massive opportunity for people to invest in themselves again.”
Second, Hewlett notes that the best companies are increasingly understanding and embracing demographic change. “If you take the global talent pipeline – that’s everyone in the world with a BA degree – only 17% of the pool is Caucasian males,” she says, while 83% are women or people of color. “We have a whole different set of opportunities in front of us, and we’ve got to figure out how to leverage our talent pool much better.”
As Hewlett discussed in her recent book Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution, despite the West’s penchant for “equal opportunity” rhetoric, some of the greatest strides for female executives have come in the developing world. “There are winners and losers in this game,” says Hewlett, “and one reason [the talent pool] doesn’t shift very quickly is, if you take seriously the mandate that you have to get this rich diversity into your leadership groups, it means your best friends, your sons, your neighbors, and maybe you will lose out, because in the mature world, it’s a flat-lined economy. It’s very difficult to shift power when it’s a static universe – a zero-sum game.” Meanwhile, the growth in emerging markets is, at least for now, lifting all boats: “One reason why 15% of CEOs in India are now female is because there are so many opportunities, you can be generous. You can give all kinds of opportunities to highly able women because it’s not encroaching on your stuff; it’s new stuff. Power is never given up easily.”
Indeed, says Hewlett, “the default thing to do, unless there are tremendous forces that encourage you to do something else, is to tap on the shoulder someone whom you’re the most comfortable with. So if you grew up in Greenwich, it’ll be someone who belongs to the same club, someone who’s also white and male – that’s the person you’ll trust most readily, and the person you’ll imagine will have your back. But if you had an Asian woman in charge, she’ll do the same thing; it’s the human instinct, not a problem just white guys have.”
Unfortunately, however, that human instinct may be preventing us from tapping the best talent and leveraging real business opportunities. “Our business case rests on innovation,” says Hewlett. “The power of diversity on teams unlocks innovation and drives growth, and that’s why a leader might find the courage and the clarity to shift what power looks like at his or her company.”
What is your company doing to attract and retain talent? Are you embracing flextime, sabbaticals, or other “work-life balance” strategies? How are you harnessing the power of diversity?
A version of this article was first published on Forbes on 8/20/12
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